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Hispanic Influence Seen In Florida

March 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Jorge Friguls arrived in Orlando 26 years ago, people gawked at him when he spoke Spanish.

``There were probably me and two other guys who spoke Spanish,'' joked Friguls, news director of WVEN television. ``When I was on the phone talking to my parents in Puerto Rico, people looked at me like, 'What planet are you from?'''

Times have changed in this theme park mecca of 1.6 million people. With thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the Orlando area each year, Spanish has become common in department stores, hospitals, movie theaters, doctors' offices, the YMCA, hotel lobbies and theme park lines.

Hispanics now make up 16.5 percent of metro Orlando's population, representing 271,627 residents, according to census figures released Tuesday. In 1990, they made up only 9 percent, or 117,836 of metro Orlando's 1.25 million residents.

Edwin Figueroa, a 36-year-old Puerto Rico native, moved to Orlando with his wife and 2-year-old son last November after living in New York and Kentucky.

``The main reason was weather,'' said Figueroa, a security guard. ``The climate is similar to Puerto Rico.''

Dario Flores, 32, arrived illegally in Orlando last August to work as a laborer. He sends money to his wife and two children in Campeche, Mexico.

``I could have gone to Texas but it is much more dangerous there because there are more illegal Mexicans,'' he said. ``I just want to improve my life.''

Overall, figures show Florida was the nation's seventh fastest-growing state during the 1990s, adding 3 million new residents. With 15.9 million people, Florida trails only California, Texas and New York in size and next year will add two U.S. House seats to the 23 it already has.

The boom can be credited largely to Hispanics, who flocked to Florida from Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala and Puerto Rico.

Hispanics, who were considered an ethnicity by the census, meaning they could be of any race, make up 2.7 million of the state's population and have passed blacks to become Florida's largest minority group.

The Hispanic influence can be felt from pop culture to politics, particularly in central Florida where Democrats surpassed Republicans in Orange County last year, largely due to the increase in registered Hispanic voters.

Central Florida voters elected their first Hispanic lawmaker to the Legislature in 1999 and former Orange County chairman Mel Martinez, a Cuban by birth, was named U.S. Secretary of Housing in 2000.

The Orlando Sentinel has recognized the trend with a weekly section devoted to Hispanic community news and even has a news bureau in Puerto Rico. There are also two Spanish-language weeklies and WVEN, a Univision television affiliate, is planning to launch a nightly Spanish-language news program in April.

Over half of the Hispanic community come from Puerto Rico and many have lived in Orlando for less than five years.

Despite the shifting demographics, the connection between central Florida and the island has remained strong.

Walt Disney World, central Florida's largest employer, regularly sends job recruiters to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican bank Banco Popular has seven offices in central Florida.

One of the most-highly anticipated events in the local Hispanic community is the Miss Puerto Rico of Orlando contest. More Latino singers, particularly Puerto Rican performers, are also starting to make Orlando a regular stop on their tours.

``You're starting to see Orlando as a big city. Before it was LA, Chicago, Miami and New York,'' said Luis Fonsi, a Puerto Rican pop singer who grew up in Florida. "Now they're starting to see Orlando as a place to do a show.''

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